The Vanishing Generation of Italian Shoemakers
October 30, 2017
By TRACY LALASZ FINN
The Sustainability of an Important Craft
It is commonly accepted if you are making high-end luxury shoes, the shoes are made in Italy regardless of where the brand is based, with few exceptions. Post-World War II, Italy flourished as a high-end shoemaking epicenter. Family heritage, quality and expert craftsmanship became synonymous with shoes stamped with the badge “Made in Italy”. A high-end price tag for these shoes was accepted overseas because of the style, quality and old world craftsmanship built into the shoe. With this reputation, one assumes that the traditional shoemaking that earned Italy this status is alive and flourishing. Italian shoes are sold in every big city around the world. Then why are young Italians, those under 30, not learning this age-old craft? Once we dug below the surface, it became apparent.
In the hot summer of 2016, I began creating a way for U.S.-based customers to access bespoke shoemakers in Italy, via a direct, web-based platform. My first step was to search online for Italian shoemakers to create an itinerary for an upcoming trip; I found very few. Serendipitously, I was connected to a shoemaking family from the region of Marche with two brands, Erika d’Alessio, an amalgamation of the children’s names, and “le trallerine”. Marche, known as the “shoe valley” seemed the perfect place to find small shoe “factories”. I envisioned cozy workshops with a just few people making shoes by hand in the old traditional way, with a little bit of dust and magic in the corners. I spent the first day in Marche meandering through a town expecting to trip over shoemaking shops, but I didn’t come across one… strange. Mostly I found closed, abandoned buildings along with the occasional café or gelato shop.
That evening was my first meeting with the family. It was something from a classic movie: an open-air restaurant at the top of a hill, a long table, a big family, fantastic, simple country wine poured from carafes, incredible sweeping views of the rolling hills below leading to the sea. As family-style dishes came out of the kitchen nonstop, I discussed our vision with the family, translating through their 30-year-old daughter, Erika. She explained that over the previous few decades, it’s become difficult for family factories to remain open. I realized why I hadn’t seen shoemaking shops that day. “Did you see all of the little [garage-style] doors closed all through the town today?” Erika asked. Of course I had, up and down every street. “Every one of them,” she said, “did something with shoes. But most are closed now.”
They explained that decades ago, high-end brands and designers would contract one or two styles each season to a number of small factories. In the one town alone, there were more than 150 small family factories. But with a massive consolidation of designers being sold to larger companies, there was a shift to push costs down and pay the small factories less, down to the point where the small family factories couldn’t pay for materials, let alone the cost of labor. Today, with as few as 15 family shoe factories still open in this town, some have taken the plunge and invested in developing their own brands to sell through stores in Europe. But even this newer business model has become a tough existence.
The following day, I joined the family at their factory so that Mamma (Nadia) and Papa (Franco), along with their few employees, could show me start-to-finish how quality Italian shoes are made. The process was fascinating, however, the stop-you-in-your-tracks moment happened when the single shoe was complete. Holding a finished, coral leather stiletto in her hand, Erika, the daughter of the factory said offhandedly, “Wow, cool — I never saw my parents make a shoe before.”
I had trouble comprehending that, but due to the struggles the family-owned factories have faced, shoemakers often want their children to learn other careers. There simply is not enough work or money in shoemaking anymore. In the U.S., we view high-end Italian shoemaking as an art form. But in the shoe valley of Italy, along the Adriatic coast north of Rome, it is a failing profession. With few children learning from their parents and grandparents, the longstanding tradition of quality Italian shoemaking is not long for this world, and may be lost within one or two more generations.
Still, there are plenty of high-end Italian shoes sold for a premium in the U.S. today. Where and how are they made? That has been a difficult question to answer. We’ve been told that much of the shoemaking is done in massive factories with foreign workers, where lower wages are paid and materials are purchased in bulk. We’ve also been told some designers make shoes in factories in other countries near Italy, where the salaries are lower, maybe a couple hundred dollars per month, and only the final step is performed in Italy: attaching the “Made in Italy” stamped sole to the shoe. Other designers now simply make their shoes on other continents where labor is much cheaper. I feel it’s important to recognize there are still incredible Italian designers that continue to have their shoes made in the traditional Italian way — just not enough to move the needle on a countrywide scale.
But, there is hope: The mission at Alice d’Italia is to challenge how you purchase high-end goods. To ask, “Who made this?”. Change is possible if we work together to educate conscious consumers in connecting them directly with the makers, on a personal level.
A year into our project, Erika now works two days in the factory with her parents. Her job has been cutting the piece of leather that attaches the shoe to the form during the construction process. This is very important to get right, because it is the only raw edge of leather that can be seen in the finished shoe. For eight months, Erika has done only this task. She’s ready to learn the next step, but Nadia, her mother, tells her “No, it is not perfect yet.” While certainly not the only way to learn a craft, the type of training a person endures in a multi-generation family craft instills a certain kind of pride. A “why” that runs deeper.
Certainly, handmade shoes are not the only craft that is struggling to stay alive in Italy, but shoes are an interesting case study. People around the world recognize the quality and beauty of an Italian-made shoe, and the high price they command abroad is usually not questioned. But what portion of this luxury price tag is going to the makers? Most luxury customers pay it anyway, without batting an eye, or at the very least feeling they are getting what they are paying for. For me, I always had the illusion that a healthy portion was going to the person who created it. For this family craft to become sustainable once again, we need to ask who made the shoes, not just what country they were made in. If the children of these families are forced to abandon the age-old craft because it becomes impossible to make a living, the reality is that the “Made in Italy” stamp on the bottom of your shoes may mean much less one day soon.
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